How do you make a church friendly for autistic people? This month is autism awareness month. This is a necessity as so many people do not really understand autism. Within church we are no better. Many churches would cause someone with autism a huge amount of difficulty but it would not actually be that difficult to do something about this.
I asked Alison Quarton, the mother of an autistic son, to write a guest blog on her experience in church. She has found a church that has responded very positively to having an autistic child in the congregation and finishes her blog with some tips for churches on how to make your church more autism friendly.
We moved to our current church when Edward was 2. He was like many 2 yr olds in that he couldn’t sit still, wanted to run around and being quiet was almost impossible. Edward couldn’t talk and just screamed instead (He was 4 1/2 by the time he started talking and it is only recently that his speech is clear enough for “outsiders” to understand). He was particularly agitated by the music, but as his autism was undiagnosed at the time, we thought he would be OK when he got used to it. He was totally unaware of what was going on around him which meant we could make very good use of the creche facilities! Church made us feel very welcome despite his behaviour, the retired couple who tended to sit behind us used to tell us regularly that Edward was very welcome and that his behaviour never disturbed them (this is something which cannot have been true but was said so regularly that we genuinely started to relax more).
Edward is now 8 and church is one of a small number of places where he is relaxed and able to be himself. He has had a teenage helper in Sunday School in each group he has been in and they have had varying tasks from writing for him, to explaining what is expected of him, to allowing him to play without disrupting the rest of the group. All the Sunday School leaders have had basic autism training and the younger groups now have visual timetables to help children know what is happening next. All groups have set routines so the pattern is the same whoever is leading.
The congregation has got used to Edward’s outbursts and cries in all age services of “i’m bored, when are we going home” are ignored. The vicar seems to notice in those services when he is struggling and Edward often gets invited up to help (seems like rewarding bad behaviour to his parents but it does keep him engaged and has helped the congregation to get to know him). It has backfired once or twice, when the children (usually more than 60 of them) come back into the service they come to the front so we can see what they have been learning. On one occasion Edward’s group had been making candles and Edward was asked what he had made, he replied “yoda!”
The clergy have looked after us as a family and listen patiently to the ups and downs of life with an autistic child. They have also provided babysitting for wedding anniversary and birthday nights out. We rarely go out as a couple as it disrupts routine and can cause distress for weeks afterwards.
Edward isn’t the only autistic child in church now and we rarely feel we need to apologise for his behaviour. All age services are still difficult because the routine is different and there are no groups to go to. The Bible uses a lot of picture language which is very difficult for someone on the autistic spectrum to understand and we use phrases which can even be quite disturbing. For example the phrase “to cry your eyes out” will be taken literally. Processing the language of a sermon, however interactive and all age friendly, is often too much for him. This means that I take him out and we have our own group just the two of us. As I lead Sunday School groups twice a month it does mean that I am only in the service once a month.
We used to sit at the back of church for easy escape to the crèche. However, we have discovered that it is better for Edward to sit in the front row. We think this is because he has more space but also because there is less to process as most people are behind him, not in front to distract.
We have started a monthly support group for parents of SEN children which is wonderful. However kind and thoughtful people are, very few understand the stresses and sometimes exhaustion that goes with having a child with special needs. There are times when the strain is felt by siblings and couples and it is a great help just to be able to talk about it without misunderstanding or judgement.
There are parents who have brought their autistic child to church but not stayed. I don’t know whether we didn’t do enough to reassure them of their welcome or they didn’t keep coming long enough for their child to get used to a new environment. A screaming child is difficult to cope with for everyone but I am sad they did not feel able to stay.
To summarise, my top tips for churches are:
- Encourage parents to be open about their child’s needs, and be careful not to judge behaviour of any child!
- A space to go if child needs space.
- Take time to listen
- Have a service sheet so you can see what happens next. (Putting the whole service just on a screen means that a child/adult with autism doesn’t know what is happening next which can cause great anxiety.)
- Things like visual timetables in Sunday school help all children not just the autistic ones.